The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently found itself in hot water. The New York Times revealed the agency colluded with environmentalist groups in a campaign to manufacture public comments in favor of a new rule that expands its own power. The agency’s actions and the shenanigans of its environmentalist supporters shed light on how a bad rule can flow through the regulatory process. 

The Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule extends the reach of EPA to regulate ponds, ditches and even large puddles under the Clean Water Act (CWA). That’s bad news for farmers, ranchers, small businesses or anyone else who wants to use land under CWA jurisdiction: It costs an average of $270,000 to obtain the special permit required to do so, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses.


The downsides are clear, and the EPA’s judgment was murky even before the rule. Last year, the agency threatened to fine a Wyoming man $75,000 a day for building a pond on his own property without a permit.

Almost immediately after its proposal, the rule prompted a wide opposition urging the EPA to “ditch the rule,” from small businesses, farmers and ranchers, energy producers and others.

The EPA needed support for its water grab. While the EPA failed to consult with those harmed by the WOTUS rule, documents obtained by The New York Times show the EPA worked with environmentalist groups including the Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council to manufacture public comments in its favor.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthyRegina (Gina) McCarthyEPA halts planned Taiwan trip for Wheeler OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump replaces head of energy regulatory commission | Biden climate agenda would slam into Senate GOP roadblocks | Emails show Park Police reliance on pepper balls, outside police forces during Lafayette protests MORE later testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing that 87 percent of the approximately 1 million public comments her agency received were supportive. By omitting mention of the efforts (or money spent) to solicit the comments, McCarthy attempted to make it look like there was a spontaneous groundswell of support for her rule.

And that wasn’t the only subterfuge behind the EPA’s power grab.

A number of left-wing groups camouflaged as sportsmen-friendly organizations, including the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) and Trout Unlimited, were also helping the EPA to foist the water rule onto an unsuspecting public.

In July 2014, TRCP called for “broad public involvement,” setting the table for the EPA’s campaign to gather public comment in support. This despite the fact that the organization’s support had already been touted by the EPA in an effort to make it look like a broad coalition was in favor.

These groups claim to represent sportsmen’s interests—giving the rule seemingly conservative support—but they are tangled in a web of money from left-wing foundations with anti-gun and anti-agriculture agendas. BHA gets most of its donations from three environmental groups, according to tax records, while TRCP gets its money from a handful of Big Labor and Big Green groups. Trout Unlimited, meanwhile, has taken tens of millions from fringe environmental groups.

A bipartisan bill to send the rule back to the EPA’s drawing board has already passed the House and a similar measure introduced by Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Senate advances energy regulator nominees despite uncertainty of floor vote Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee MORE (R-Wyo.) has gained cosponsors from both sides of the aisle in the Senate. In response BHA labeled the congressional effort “un-American.”

Meanwhile, attorneys general in three states have said that state challenges to the rule are likely.

And the EPA may have violated federal law that prohibits using appropriated funds for lobbying in creating the comments. Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsTrump's controversial Fed nominee stalled after Senate setback Business groups scramble to forge ties amid race for House Agriculture chair Republicans hold on to competitive Kansas House seat MORE (R-Kan.) called it “a political grassroots lobbying campaign with environmental groups to manipulate the process and disregard legitimate concerns from rural America.”

The EPA’s brazenness in ramming through a rule with camouflaged and concocted support is concerning even for a town where there’s no shortage of dirty tricks. Congress would be wise to wash away the water rule before it does lasting damage.

Coggin is the director of research at the Environmental Policy Alliance, a project of the non-profit Center for Organizational Research and Education. CORE is supported by a wide variety of businesses and foundations, including those in the hospitality, agriculture, and energy industries.